Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, 50 Years On

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Look closely at this picture, taken 50 years ago this week on 12 November, 1966. The figure sitting in the front pew of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix is none other than one of the giants of 20th century music, Duke Ellington, listening to local band P-Nut Butter.

The photo was taken during An Afternoon With Ellington, a workshop with  Phoenix musicians that took place two days after his tour of sacred concerts came to the cathedral. Half a century later, that visit will be marked this weekend with a new performance there, as the culmination of a series of events to mark the anniversary.

The visit to Phoenix in 1966 was part of a tour that took place after the success of Ellington’s first Concert Of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. That performance overcame the resistance of doubters who considered the idea of jazz in a church to be blasphemous, with a successful combination of traditional choral music, gospel, new compositions and older work such as ‘Come Sunday.’

On 12 and 13 November, the vocal ensemble the Phoenix Chorale will perform Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, with the first concert at Trinity (where they are resident) and the second at Mesa Community College. The material will be drawn from three programmes assembled by the Duke between 1965 and 1973, including new arrangements and acappella compositions performed exactly as Ellington composed them.

Charles Bruffy, the triple Grammy-winning leader of the ensemble, tells “When I started with the Phoenix Chorale, it was known as the Phoenix Bach Choir back then, and on the wall was a poster that was advertising the sacred concert, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a cool thing for this church to have done way back when.’

“And so I kind of put that on my bucket list. It seemed like it was so far in the future that I didn’t give it much thought, and here we are 17 years later, and it’s time.” also quotes Richard Usher, the son of the Right Reverend Bradbury Usher, dean of Trinity Cathedral who invited Ellington to perform in 1966. Richard, then 16, helped set up the concert and met the Duke beforehand.

“The concert itself was a dressy event,” he says. “A lot of buildup to it. It was certainly extremely important to my father, and he was the kind of guy who would sweat the details of things of that nature. Everybody was moved. It was a very uplifting experience. My father was extremely pleased with how it had come off.” More information about the concerts is available here.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jack Hailey

    October 14, 2017 at 1:23 am

    Thank you for posting this remembrance. I’m also searching for information about a performance a few years’ earlier in Phoenix of Ellington and his Orchestra — sometime between 1962 and 1965 — at the Sheraton. A young woman was singing with the orchestra, but I have no program or review to consult. Any ideas how to find out when it was and who the personnel were that time? Thanks.

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